No Other Gods: Emergent Monotheism in Israel

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No Other Gods: Emergent Monotheism in Israel, by Robert Karl Gnuse. JSOTSup 241. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press,1997. Pp. 392, 47.50/$78.00.

Robert Karl Gnuse's thesis in this book is that, given the new archaeological models that describe the emergence of nascent Israel out of Canaan in ca. 1200 scE and given the new history-of religions models that describe the emergence of Israelite religion out of Canaanite religion, Israelite monotheism also needs to be understood as "emergent." More specifically, for Gnuse, "[T]he basic thesis of this work [is] that . . . monotheism developed over the course of many centuries in the ancient world . . . and that these developmental stages often come in `bursts' in response to particular social and religious crises" (p. 16). Even more specifically, Gnuse understands Israelite monotheism as developing throughout the first six centuries of Israel's history and as coming to full expression only in response to the social and religious crisis of the exile.

As Gnuse readily admits, this thesis is hardly unique to him: indeed, he describes most of the current generation of biblical scholars who discuss the emergence of monotheism as favoring an evolutionary model that culminates with a full-blown expression of monotheism in the exilic period. Moreover, he cites Rainer Albertz, Othmar Keel, Bernhard Lang, and Mark S. Smith as scholars who share his more particular belief that this evolutionary process occurred in "bursts" or through "a chain of revolutions [e.g., the revolt of Elijah, Elisha, and Jehu, the reforms of Josiah, and the crisis of exile] which follow one upon another in rapid succession" (pp. 141-42). But if Gnuse's basic thesis is not in and of itself new, then what is the purpose of this book? At one point, in his conclusion, Gnuse claims that his goal is to "make such ideas more available to the general reader" (p. 350). Yet the last sentence of the book suggests otherwise, stating that "[t]his work is designed to further the direction of scholarly thought in this generation and to provide some speculative grist for the minds of scholars, theologians, and students of religion" (p. 356). My own opinion is that this latter sentence better describes the more likely audience for Gnuse's book, as Gnuse's discussion throughout presumes a fair amount of specialized knowledge that most general readers just would not have (Gnuse presumes, for example, that his audience is basically familiar with Josiah's Deuteronomist reforms). Yet if the audience is better conceived of as "scholars, theologians, and students of religion," that is, as specialists, then the summary of the writings of scholars on the issues of the settlement process and the development of pre-exilic Israelite religion" (p. 350) is entirely too long-128 of the book's 356 pages! Indeed, even if the audience is conceived of as the general reader,128 pages of summary is still too long, especially given Gnuse's own admission that the nuances of the settlement discussion-that is, the discussion on pp. 32-58 of whether the settlement was effected through peaceful withdrawal, or internal nomadic settlement, or peaceful transition, or peaceful amalgamation-are "irrelevant" (p. 346) to his larger concerns.

Still, Gnuse's book does contain some original contributions, in particular some reflections concerning the theological implications of an emergent model of monotheism and some suggestions about locating an emergent model of monotheism within larger theoretical paradigms. …